Candidates differ on bay, environment

Ehrlich, O'Malley at odds on fisheries, climate, energy

October 11, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Like just about every other Maryland politician of the past three decades, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. each say they are dedicated to restoring the Chesapeake Bay.

Each can point to actions he's taken as governor to help the ailing body of water that occupies the heart of the state. But in their rematch for the state's highest office, both take pains to point out the differences in their approaches.

And when it comes to other environmental issues, such as climate change and clean energy, they're even more at odds.

Ehrlich pledges, much as he did when he was elected governor eight years ago, to give farmers, watermen and developers "a seat at the table" in fashioning policies and laws affecting their livelihoods. While the Obama administration is preparing a tough pollution "diet" requiring states to reduce pollution or face sanctions, Ehrlich says he prefers a federal "partner" that offers money and help but doesn't dictate.

"I like to do things in a more collegial approach," he says. "I don't like that top-down, mandated, 'You do this,' one-size-fits-all."

He vows to revisit the O'Malley administration's new plan for restoring the bay's depleted oysters, which would reduce the waters open to traditional wild harvest while promoting cultivation of the shellfish on leased tracts of bay bottom. He calls it unfair to watermen.

Ehrlich says he'll restore balance to environmental regulations affecting developers and other businesses. And he suggests he'll try to soften or repeal laws requiring the state to reduce climate-warming greenhouse gases and to get one-fifth of its electricity from wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.

O'Malley says he, too, believes in forging consensus and encouraging voluntary conservation, especially among the state's independent-minded farmers. He says his administration has listened to growers, builders and fishermen in shaping rules that govern them. But to safeguard the environment, he adds, some business and individual activities must be regulated more tightly.

He defends the greenhouse gas and renewable energy mandates, and welcomes "an EPA that's actually pushing," since the states and federal government have repeatedly failed to achieve cleanup goals over the past 27 years.

"I think a dead Chesapeake Bay is bad for business," O'Malley says. "And there are some things we can only do together as a people," such as "preserving the health of our natural resources."

There's at least one thing on which O'Malley and Ehrlich agree — though barely. Ehrlich touts the Bay Restoration Fund that he pushed through the legislature in 2004 as "the most important environmental initiative in a generation."

Financed through a $2.50 monthly "flush fee" paid by every Maryland household on its utility or property tax bill, it has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for upgrading the 67 largest sewage treatment plants — a significant source of the nitrogen and phosphorus that are fouling the bay and causing a sprawling dead zone in the estuary every summer.

Portions of the fund also go to homeowners to install septic systems that release less pollution and to farmers to plant cover crops to keep excess fertilizer from washing off their fields and into the bay.

O'Malley credits Ehrlich for the initiative, saying that "it was a good thing to do" and calling the funds "very needed and very important."

And there the comity ends. Ehrlich accuses O'Malley of raiding $200 million from the fund to help shore up the state's budget and vows to protect it from future fiscal transfers if elected. O'Malley counters that he replaced the diverted funds with proceeds from bond sales, so no treatment plant projects were affected — though the borrowed money must be paid back with interest.

O'Malley points out that when Ehrlich was governor, he took $480 million in funds supposedly earmarked for buying parkland and preserving farmland without replacing any of it.

"If those were the decisions he made in easier times on open space, imagine what he would do in these tough times," O'Malley says.

They seem to agree on one other key point, to varying degrees. Neither is eager to raise the "flush fee," even though there's a looming $530 million shortfall in the fund to finish upgrading the state's 66 largest sewage plants. Officials estimate that doubling the fee to $5 a month would cover the gap.

"That's not option one or two," Ehrlich says.

An advisory committee has suggested several alternatives to raising the fee, including requiring municipalities and counties that own the treatment plants to pay a share of the upgrade costs. Ehrlich indicated that he would be open to that.

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